Hands on: Halo 4
343 Industries has taken control of the Halo franchise with some serious determination.
A subsidiary of Microsoft Game Studios, the Seattle-based company has been entrusted with intellectual property formerly under the custody of Bungie; no small burden, considering each previous Halo iteration has been released to critical acclaim and staggering sales.
But more than that, 343 now directly controls every single aspect of the Halo series, from the game itself to web episodes, action figures, novels, anime and more. The Halo universe is 343, a truth that becomes more readily apparent when considering the sheer breadth of additional material the studio has packed into the fiction.
Over the years, the classic story of Master Chief and the Halo rings has grown as more characters and increasingly complex origin stories and mysteries have contributed to the fight. Ancient Elite warriors, the ODSTs of New Mombasa and Noble Team all play their part in an ever-expanding universe, the importance of which has not been lost on any of the fervent senior staff members on hand at a recent shown-and-tell in Washington State.
The first and third campaign missions were available to play, setting the scene for the triumphant return of Master Chief. Having previously been cut loose to drift in space after the collapse of a Slipspace Portal, John-117 is awoken from hypersleep slumber by Cortana - an AI guide who has become Chief's and closest connection to humanity - when the hull of the UNSC ship Forward Unto Dawn is invaded by the Covenant.
Weaving through the ruined vessel stamping out opposition, the first mission allows players to truly appreciate the scope of the damage to the ship, as well as the formidable opponents bent on destroying our erstwhile hero. Cortana, naturally, is as nervous as a short butler at a penguin shoot, although none of the banter between these two characters has diminished, proving that 343 appreciates the pivotal role the relationship between Chief and Cortana plays in the franchise. If anything, Cortana's appearance has moved one step closer to digital nudity; something with which to titillate the title's audience, and perhaps question how Chief manages to get anything done at all when she's around.
There's little time for explanation as Chief moves from corridor to corridor eliminating the Covenant threat as the looming hulk of the planet Requiem rapidly approaches. Home to the legendary Forerunners, this massive world dominates the screen as Covenant are pumped through tubes and into the Forward Unto Dawn. The fighting is tense and brutal - anyone expecting a combat cake-walk will be swiftly cut down, as even on normal difficulty the game represents a serious challenge.
Despite the speed and ferocity of the action however, there's little sign of graphical slow-down. Managing to wring such fluid performance out of a seven-year-old hardware platform is remarkable indeed, and proof that 343 certainly has the expertise to present a title every bit as graphically imposing as the early Halo releases were for Microsoft's fledgling console. Dingy lighting effects within Forward Unto Dawn's ruined hull perfectly convey the dark situation with a suitable sense of despair, as the surface of the planet Requiem blinks with industrial activity, hinting at its technological prowess and inviting the player forward to the next chapter of the story.
There has obviously been an early push by 343 to stamp its mark on the series, as new enemies and weapons abound once terra firma is reached. The third campaign mission features the Prometheans, immensely powerful units that require a whole new approach to successfully defeat in battle. Principally staffed by holographic Knights hell-bent on ruining Chief's day, the forces of the Prometheans come with airborne shield-generating defenders known as Watchers. Hovering over the field of battle and casting defensive auras over select units, these winged frustrations must be removed before any serious frontal attack can succeed, and finding creative ways to dispatch these without angering Crawlers - scuttling creatures armed to the hilt with powerful melee attacks and bad attitudes - forms a significant part of the action in this chapter.
Happily however, Chief's arsenal has expanded to include new weapons featuring Forerunner technology and powerful alternate fire modes. A new pistol that recalls the original Covenant sidearm has a shot that can be charged; doing so will cause a cleverly animated pair of panels to extend from the barrel as an electrical effect winds up and the shot is unleashed, almost always obliterating whatever happens to be in the way. A new rifle fires accurate shots in a zoomed-in sniper mode, and there's even a new shotgun with a blast that can bounce off walls. Each must be utilised as efficiently as possible to avoid scavenging for ammunition on the field of battle halfway through a fire-fight.
Once the campaign is over, Halo's multiplayer is typically where the series has offered the most value, and it appears that this fourth iteration will be no different. Replacing the Firefight mode from Halo: Reach and ODST is Spartan Ops, a co-operative venture that will be released in weekly instalments designed to create - in the words of 343 - "watercooler moments". Each Spartan Ops release will be introduced with a live-action webisode that serves the dual purpose of further extending out the narrative exploration 343 is so deeply invested in, and no doubt providing some young actors with a weekly stipend.
Spartan Ops take place following the campaign, and are largely centred around the Infinity, a large battlestar on the hunt for signs of Master Chief near planet Requiem. As a Spartan aboard this vessel, players are encouraged to customise their avatars and roll out to perform various missions, such as clearing a path to an objective and regrouping to demolish a target. The gameplay itself is fairly standard fare, although the combined draw-card of the campaign tie-in and the allure of the Halo universe will likely keep fans jostling with Covenant and Promethean forces well into the small hours.
Versus and team-based modes offer the same madcap carnage they always did, as Capture the Flag and Slayer return to keep loyalists happy. However, the addition of Dominion most accurately shows 343's desire to stamp its own mark on Halo's legacy; this fast-paced mode sees opposition forces go head-to-head in an attempt to capture and hold three bases, each of which can be upgraded to sport better defences, provided a team can retain possession for long enough. Turrets, shields and even the ability to generate vehicles will reward those players who can work together to hold strategic positions, and a cleverly designed endgame encourages the dominant team to hunt down limping survivors and exterminate them before they can rise up in a last-ditch effort to regain power.
Dominion may well be the crowning achievement of Halo 4, and certainly looks to be tailored towards luring back past players. Players that, for whatever reason, may have been attracted to other first-person shooters demonstrating greater innovation during the last few years of Bungie's stewardship. Here lies the rub; 343 has a fantastic overarching story to work with, but now more than ever the developer must contend with severe competition when it comes to the fundamental aspects of first-person console shooters. Fortunately though, there are times when piloting Master Chief around hostile alien worlds feels every bit as exciting and awe-inspiring as the original titles, and for those already invested in Halo as a franchise there's no doubt that Halo 4 will satisfactorily scratch a rather large itch.
It's too soon to stretch a large banner over the huddled office space at 343 proclaiming "mission accomplished" - that will have to wait for November. But for now, the return of Master Chief should be viewed as one of the high points in a crowded holiday sales season.